5 Ways Scientific Research Is Failing Women

Today, June 10th, is the 23rd anniversary of the signing of an edict by the National Institute of Health proclaiming the necessity of including women and minorities in test studies. Yep: until just over two decades ago, it was actively discouraged to have women as medical or scientific test subjects in a study, because their bodies are all peculiar and might distort results. The only rational body is a male body, amiright? (I am not right.)

Unfortunately, the NIH's edict is only part of a picture of misconception, bias, and worrying stereotypes within scientific research about the brains and bodies of women. Whether they're the subject of a trial or the ones conducting it, science is still often an unfriendly world for women. And, as we'll discover, women's own problematic beliefs about their aptitude and bodies can contribute to the problem, too.

It might seem like I'm drawing with a broad brush here, but it's not as strange as it seems to mention the lack of testing of medication on women and the lack of women on scientific advisory board in the same article. It's part of a broader issue regarding research science's general unfriendliness to women: while it's becoming easier, there are still significant barriers to our presence in research spaces, from the inclusion of women in scientific trials to the lack of women in Nobel Prize-winning laboratories.

So let's have a look at the ways in which inequality still pervades scientific research, from the delivery of drugs to the ability of women to make their careers.

1. Many Medications Aren't Tested On Women

I've talked about this at length before, but it's important that we realize this: many medications currently on the market aren't actually tested on the bodies of women. Despite increasing awareness of the fact that female and male bodies can react substantively differently to drugs — due to hormonal differences, body weight, cell composition and other diverse factors — the predominant testing model for new drugs is still often to only test on dudes. The reason? Female bodies are seen as less "reliable" test subjects because of the menstrual cycle, and scientists are (understandably) petrified of accidentally testing a drug on a pregnant woman. The FDA actually banned all women who could pregnant from being tested medically between the years of 1977 and 1993.

The 1993 National Institute Of Health edict we're celebrating right now was actually the shift in this policy. It was signed into law on June 10, 1993, and declared that "In conducting or supporting clinical research for the purposes of this title, the Director of NIH shall ... ensure that (a) women are included as subjects in each project of such research; and (b) members of minority groups are included in such research." But this is an edict, not a law, and it's tricky to enforce, so we can't assume all our meds have been tested on female bodies. And that's a dangerous failing.

As we understand more about women's bodies, sexual anatomical difference, and the necessities of gendered safety guidelines in the development of drugs, the spotlight is beginning to shift: Melinda Wenner Moyer, on the blog of the Public Library of Science, has pointed out that scientific medication testing on pregnant women is both necessary and "deserved," as women try to make the safest choices for their infants. But this is only part of the spectrum of difficulties with being female in research science. Whether you're a subject or a researcher, your voice is still statistically less likely to be heard.

2. There's Still Gender Inequality In Research Science

If you want to be a research scientist in the top echelons of your field — whether in academia or in industry — your gender may provide a tricky barrier to negotiate. In a shocking article for the Huffington Post on the gender gap in research science, Ulrike Decoene, who works as head of the scientific funding body AXA Research Fund, lays out some very damning statistics: even though women are entering STEM fields with relish at undergraduate level in higher and higher proportions, that isn't yielding a larger number of professional female research scientists. "Just 28% of the world’s research scientists in the world today are women," Decoene writes. "That figure rises to 32% for the United States and Europe. These proportions have been largely stable since 2004 and are still a long way from parity."

And this inequality increases as people move up the ladder to refine their skills. A 2014 study revealed that in biology — one of the most popular undergraduate scientific subjects for women (more than 86,000 graduate per year) — the number of women gradually "thinned out" as positions became more senior. A large part of this appears to be because making it in research science requires a prominent lab to work in as a graduate, preferably with a really notable scientist leading your team — and the study found that the best labs in the country, with Nobel Prize-winning male scientists, are far more likely to have male post docs and graduates in their elite research groups, as are very high-end universities. (This imbalance only applied to teams led by men; if the teams were led by women, this difference disappeared.)

3. ...And That Extends To The Science Boardroom, Too

Scientific research isn't just about scientists hammering away in labs and shouting in delight when they discover something extraordinary. There are also companies that fund research, pursue scientists, and market scientific innovation. (I'm familiar with this on a family level: my brother is a scientist who's moved from actual research into helping scientists get companies interested in their discoveries. This is sometimes called "knowledge commercialization".) And when it comes to women in the world of these companies, the picture is bleak.

A special 2013 article in Nature covered the state of women on scientific advisory boards, which make the big decisions for a scientific company's future — and it found that while the female presence within academic science is gradually increasing, women are still being kept out of the boardroom when it comes to leading commercial research. A study of every scientific advisory board in the U.S. found that female presences at this high level never exceeded 10.2 percent. Nature's experts disagreed on the precise cause, but the unfair burden of childcare on female scientists, a "boy's club" mentality in scientific companies, and the overall lower number of women in science all add into the picture.

4. Unconscious Bias Is Hampering Female Scientists' Careers

If anybody believes that the problems of female participation in professional scientific research aren't increased by unconscious bias (which means the unacknowledged beliefs that women are somehow not as "good" at science as men), then there are a few startling studies that might open your eyes.

One of the most famous was a bombshell when it came out in 2012, in no less than the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States Of America (PNAS). (That's as legit as you get.) The scientists involved used an experiment that's been done to prove unconscious bias before: the use of identical CVs. 127 professors, of both genders, were sent identical, not-particularly-stellar applications for a graduate. The only difference was that half were submitted under the name John, and the other half under the name Jennifer. The professors, regardless of their own gender, recommended a $4,000-higher starting salary for John than Jennifer, and rated John more competent and hirable in basically every regard.

If you're wondering if a demonstration of skill might have changed the bias of the hirers, think again. Another study from 2014, also published in PNAS, gave male and female undergraduate subjects a mathematical task to complete, and then asked other undergraduates (both male and female) to assess whether they'd hire them based on their completion of the tasks. The "employers" were only given the math results and the applicants' genders, and both genders seemed to complete the task equally well. But guess what? Both male and female "employers" were twice as likely to hire men as women. Most of us seem to believe, on some unconscious level, that women aren't as good at STEM, even if they've just demonstrated that they are.

In Scientific American, medical researcher Claire Pomeroy describes "a culture of exclusion and unconscious bias that leaves many women feeling demoralized, marginalized and unsure," and records her surveys of "micro-assaults," or instances of sexism and misogyny, among female research scientists. Unsurprisingly, it seems a majority of them have experienced micro-assaults at some point in their careers. With an environment of micro-assaults, career interference, and apparent disbelief in female ability, it's no wonder that female research scientists can get discouraged.

5. A Lot Of General Medical Testing Doesn't Include Women At All

And that previously discussed gender gap in testing — it isn't just about medication. Many new procedures and ideas need to be tested before they can be recommended to the general public, and women are often completely left out of these test studies, too. The Guardian , reporting on the issue in 2015, points out that women are less likely to take part in studies overall, and that a lot of research that does involve women doesn't account for their gender properly. Whether it's medication or diseases, neuroscience or cancer, it's a problem.

And in 2014, a study with the subtitle "Women Can't Wait" revealed that not much has really changed since the 1993 edict — at least when it comes to women and scientific testing. Fewer than 45 percent of depression studies use female test subjects, and only one-third of studies on cardiovascular disease include women.

Scientific research, bluntly, needs to do better. The NIH act of 1993 was a fantastic start, but 23 years later, it's time for some real change to actually happen, and for women to be integrated properly into scientific research on all levels.

Images: Smithsonian Institute, Giphy